One of his last acts as Orewa College associate principal became a life threatening ordeal for retiring Warkworth teacher Paul Hicks, who contracted a serious illness after a recent South American student recruitment drive. His subsequent hospitalisation kept him away from the only end-of-year senior prize giving he’s ever missed in 31-years. Well-known for his ready smile, he hasn’t let the incident take the shine off his career at the school. Appropriately, for a mathematician and keen traveller, he’s calculated that his commute over the years adds up to going about 10 times around the world. But, he told Adele Thackray he considers it well worth it, to have been able to live and work in places he loves.
We’d been back from South America for just a couple of days when I became so ill I couldn’t eat or drink. I had an E coli infection in my blood that caused my kidneys and liver to start shutting down. After five days in hospital, an intensive antibiotic treatment and 12 litres of intravenous drip, I was well enough to go home, but the hospital registrar admitted she had been worried about me when I came in. It was the first time I’d ever been ill as a result of travelling to South America, since I eagerly volunteered for the job 12 years ago. I’ve had an amazing time meeting the people there. The agents I deal with greet me like a long lost brother and Orewa has hosted hundreds of South American students over the years, mostly from Brazil, but increasingly from Argentina and Chile. They fit in well with the school and its other international students, who not only contribute to the school’s finances, but also add character and culture, expanding our students’ horizons and providing them with friends around the world. This year we had our first student from Colombia and I’m hoping next year we’ll also see students from Peru and Ecuador, where my trips have helped make them aware of New Zealand as a possible destination for high school students.
I didn’t like school much myself. I was brought up in London and went to a fairly student-unfriendly English-style grammar, but I did okay and got a job at London University’s zoology department. However, at 18 I decided London didn’t have much to offer me and I left home by myself to live in Australia. We were told it was ‘the land of milk and honey’ – what we weren’t told was that it had conscription for the Vietnam War. After a great year-and-a-half working in Sydney, the birth date of two of my friends was announced as the part of the next intake for compulsory National Service, so we all moved to New Zealand. I soon realised this was the place to live and landed a permanent science research job with renowned zoologist Professor John Morton, who coincidentally had links with the college I’d worked at in London. That was how I met my wife Bev, then a trainee teacher who was the zoology department librarian’s flatmate. She inspired me to train as a teacher and in 1977, when we returned from our OE, I went to teachers’ college, concurrently completing a maths degree.
While I was studying, we built a house on land we owned at Warkworth, a place I’ve always loved for its friendly, village atmosphere and proximity to the beaches. Soon after graduating, I was relief teaching at Wellsford when I called in at Orewa College on my day off to ask about relieving work opportunities. The next day I started teaching maths and science at the college full-time and apart from a year-long teaching exchange to Sussex, England in 1993, I’ve been there ever since. My career there has almost mirrored that of current principal, Kate Shevland, who joined the school around the same time. Both of us were maths teachers, heads of department and assistant principals, before Kate ended up principal and I became associate principal. It’s been a great working relationship.
During that time, the roll has grown from about 600 to 1900, partly due to assimilating Orewa Primary’s year seven and eight pupils in 2005, which led to a huge timetabling challenge that appealed to my mathematical brain. An extensive building programme has matched the roll growth and over time there has been a big shift in students’ attitudes. When I started, Orewa was a small, beachside school, there were plenty of jobs and students weren’t motivated about qualifications, often leaving during their senior years. Now everybody realises that qualifications are absolutely essential and many go on to tertiary institutions. My own children got a great education at Warkworth Primary and Mahurangi College that set them up for life. Daniel now works for a Warkworth company and Emma is a speech therapist in London.
I’ve also been in charge of discipline at Orewa. There’s no doubt that kids have got tougher, but perhaps more difficult to deal with are parents who believe everything their children say and blame the school for their problems. Our view is that teachers are there to teach and we have strict systems in place to support them. The switch from School Certificate and University Entrance to NCEA was a major change for both teachers and students. Orewa’s philosophy was to embrace the new national exams, although the education minister doesn’t always support them as well as she should. The idea is good; it gives students more choice and teachers a broader range of ways to assess practical subjects such as motorbody, cooking and art, but the amount of paperwork involved can be crippling. Previously students sat an exam at the end of the year and passed or failed. Now some subjects are all internally assessed and others are partially teacher assessed, while some remain totally external. Constantly assessing, being audited by ministry and other administration tasks, amounts to a lot more work for teachers.
The college’s choice to make iPads compulsory in year nine will also change the face of teaching. Although I’m a dinosaur when it comes to technology, I think its introduction is inevitable and that it will be very effective. We did a huge amount of international research before deciding this was the way to go and staff members have been training most of the year in preparation. Sure there’ll be problems with implementation, just as there were with NCEA, but you can either grizzle or do something about it and our staff are the sort of people that will make it work. For every detractor there’s a lot more who think it’s great that we’re moving with the times. Many out-of-zone students want to come here because of it. Other key roles I’ve enjoyed at the school include overseeing the arts, organising staff trout fishing expeditions and organising student trips on the Spirit of Adventure. Students invariably report this as the ‘experience of a lifetime’.
Outside of school my interests include giving new life to old stuff. In 1998 Bev and I bought the old Warkworth scout den, which used to be part of the original Warkworth School. It seemed appropriate for it to be acquired by two teachers. Restoring it was hard labour over many years, but it turned out beautifully. When we finished renovating it about 10 years ago, the Mahurangi Group artists put on an exhibition in it. Half the people came to see the art and the other half to see the building. We heard some lovely stories about people’s memories of going to school there. It’s a reminder of the lasting impact that school years make. I certainly have great memories of Orewa College that will last a life time. Although I will be sad to leave the college because of all the wonderful people I work with, I’m ready for a new chapter spending more time doing things that I love, including fly fishing and restoring old cars. Parts of a Bugatti are already on their way.